Valuing Children and Families: A 21st Century Agenda for America

Sometimes the answer may be hard to see but it might be staring you right in the face.

As conservative pundits continue to do their post-election assessments of what went wrong for Mitt Romney in the election, there has been a lot of finger-pointing and a focus on the problem. However, authors Chip and Dan Heath of Switch would likely recommend the opposite -- "finding the bright spots" and pushing for a focus on solutions.

One place to look is to focus on what worked for his opponent -- President Obama. In doing so, it is clear that the "empathy gap" in favor of the president mattered, as did his approach of addressing issues in terms of family and a concern about the future of our nation's children.

For example, in an election where a record number of women were elected to the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives and women, who constitute a majority of the electorate, voted 55-44 percent in support of President Obama, election eve polls point to a stark reality. Women, by a wide margin, apparently believed the president's policies would be more supportive of women and children than those of Governor Romney.

For example, although 62 percent of women are extremely concerned about the federal budget deficit, they believe it is about making choices. By an 81 to 18 percent margin, women voters opposed cutting Medicaid to reduce the federal budget deficit and that stood in sharp contrast to Romney's plan to cut Medicaid by hundreds of billions of dollars .

And, by a 63-32 percent gap, women disapproved of cutting tax credits for working families with children, like the Child Tax Credit and the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) to reduce the deficit, which was also counter to Romney's position.

Seizing the opportunity, the Obama campaign was quick to turn these policy positions against Governor Romney and snatch "family values" off the mantle of conservatives and replace it with a more inclusive "valuing families" frame in his campaign. It began with one of the president's first commercials, "The Story of Us," which is about meeting the challenges we face together, as a family and a nation. He also updated the definition of family to include same-sex couples -- an inclusion that has enormous appeal among younger adults, who voted for the president by a 60-37 percent margin and helped pass same-sex marriage ballot measures this year in Maryland, Maine, and Washington. In other words, Obama did it with a positive and inclusive vision for our nation's future that resonated with voters.

Republicans now must fight over this turf. In the past, they championed what they referred to as "family values," fought to fix "the marriage penalty" in tax law, helped lead the creation of the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP), and pushed for the very tax credits, like the Child Tax Credit and EITC that are important to working families with children and which Governor Romney chose to abandon in this election. In fact, on the extension of these two tax credits, President Obama was actually more in line with former presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush than Romney was.

For example, in 1986, President Ronald Reagan championed the EITC, which provides a credit to working families earning less than around $46,000 a year. As Peter Coy of Bloomberg Businessweek writes, "Recipients of the credit are among those who don't pay income tax, but Reagan never regarded that as a problem. His administration estimated that the 1986 reform of the tax code would remove 6 million working poor from the tax rolls."

Millions of working poor will be dropped from the tax rolls altogether. And that's why I'm certain that the bill I'm signing today is not only an historic overhaul of our tax code and a sweeping victory for fairness; it's also the best antipoverty bill, the best pro-family measure, and the best job-creation program ever to come out of the Congress of the United States.

In addition, President George W. Bush recognized the importance of the EITC and the Child Tax Credit to promoting work and to support families, as he worked with the Democrats in Congress to expand both credits to give bigger tax relief to working parents with children.

However, these were the very policies that Governor Romney was condemning as he criticized the "47 percent" of Americans who do not pay federal income taxes -- in large part due to the fact that the EITC and Child Tax Credit were expanded over the years on a bipartisan basis to promote work and to help working families meet their children's basic needs and stay out of poverty.

Therefore, while President Obama was emphasizing a new 21st century agenda of inclusion and "valuing families," Governor Romney had no positive agenda on children and families and was instead pushing for the recent EITC and Child Tax Credit expansions to expire.

As a result, the Obama campaign effectively struck hard at how Romney would "raise taxes on the middle class" and helped him win the "empathy factor" by a wide margin.

The president's intent to seize the "family values" mantle from the Republicans and replace it with a "valuing families" frame was further highlighted in this passage in the Democratic Party platform:

It's time we stop just talking about family values and start pursuing policies that truly value families. The President and Democrats have cut taxes for every working American family, and expanded the Child Tax Credit and Earned Income Tax Credit.

In fact, in virtually every single domestic policy articulated in the platform, families were systematically emphasized, including support for expanding the Child and Dependent Tax Credit, broadening the Family and Medical Leave Act, improving Head Start and state-based early learning programs, providing health coverage to working families, supporting military families, passing the Affordable Care Act, and protecting "our most vulnerable children by supporting our foster care system, adoption programs for all caring parents, grandparents, and caregivers, and protecting children from violence and neglect."

There was an agenda here in support of helping working families with children that shared many common themes with Republicans, such as extensive passages in both platforms in support of military families and the Republican Party platform's positive statement that it was important to "recognize the burdens on families with children." The problem for the Romney campaign was that his policy proposals were not focused on being family-friendly and were, in fact, often quite the contrary. His focus was on the negative.

According to Princeton University professor Julian Zilizer, the link between family and economic security has often been a winning one in American politics. However, as he writes, "Too often, politicians ignore the kinds of strains that economic problems cause for families." This was the case with Governor Romney in this election, as he pushed to allow the EITC and Child Tax Credit expansions to expire, sought to slash Medicaid, said he would scale back or end the Department of Education, declined to address the issue of child poverty, and opposed the DREAM Act for young immigrant children and families.

It was also not helpful to Governor Romney that a key aide to him was Ed Gillespie, who had advised President Bush to veto the widely popular, successful, and bipartisan Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP) reauthorization bill -- not just once, but twice. Gillespie had, in fact, previously talked about how the veto of a bipartisan bill to extend children's health coverage was somehow politically wise. However, in reality, the exact opposite is true.

In an election eve poll of voters back in 2008, voters supported extending CHIP by an 82-10 percent margin, including by 73-18 percent among Republicans. This highlighted how unpopular President Bush's veto of CHIP really was, including by more than a 4-to-1 margin among Republicans.

Moreover, while Gillespie's political counsel in opposition to CHIP was not popular then, it remains quite unpopular today. In an election eve poll by Lake Research Partners this year, support among voters for extending and renewing CHIP remains at 83-13 percent, including 86-10 percent among women and 75-21 percent among Republicans.

By overwhelming margins, the American people are looking for solutions and answers to the needs of our nation's children. If no other lesson is learned, it should be clear that abandoning support for young, working families with children is really never a winning platform with voters, particularly women, Hispanics, and young adults, who all voted overwhelmingly for Obama.

Columnist George Will recently advised Governor Romney and his fellow conservatives on ABC News' This Week to adopt a more positive vision:

...quit despising the American people, particularly because a lot of what they're despising them for are Republican policies. When Mitt Romney said, "So many Americans aren't paying taxes," yeah, because the Republicans doubled the Child Tax Credit for conservative reasons, yes, because they expanded the Earned Income Tax Credit, as Ronald Reagan did, because they thought it was an effective anti-poverty program.

According to a Public Opinion Strategies poll in September, by 56-20 percent, Americans expressed deep concern that the lives of children has gotten worse rather than better over the last decade. The group most concerned is Republican women, who believe that things have become worse over the last ten years for children by a 74-10 percent margin.

Rather than adopting a tax agenda that would increase child poverty, adopting a Medicaid block grant that would increase the number of uninsured children, pushing vouchers and the privatization of public schools, or declining to speak out on an agenda to combat child poverty, as Romney did, both political parties would be wise to adopt policies that would improve the lives of children and to embrace a more inclusive vision of family.

Americans very much want to restore American leadership in the world and to ensure that the next generation is better off than us. Clearly, such an agenda dictates that the place to start is by investing in and tackling the problems facing our future and our nation's children.

When President Kennedy challenged the nation to put a man on the moon in a decade, we did it. But you can't reach for the stars if you are cutting education. While we lead the world in science, technology, and innovation, that won't be the case for long if we also lead the Western world in infant mortality, childhood obesity, and child poverty.

It's time we recommit ourselves to the kind of America President Kennedy inspired us to imagine, a nation that sets high standards for the physical fitness and academic achievement of all its children and demands accountability. It takes a partnership of parents, schools and communities to grow strong minds and bodies. But you can't expect returns on investments you don't make. Although children are a quarter of the population, they receive a declining share of federal funding that is now below 8 percent. If we want a pathway forward, we need to renew commitment to tackle the problems facing America's children. It is all about choices, priorities and valuing families.

The American public is clamoring for such an agenda and vision. Continued support for CHIP, the Child Tax Credit, EITC, education, early childhood, and preventing child abuse and neglect are certainly part of it. And voters have also spoken in support of Congress moving to pass new legislation like the DREAM Act (68-26 percent).

Although the rest of that agenda forward may not be apparent to voters, they are strongly supportive of the adoption of process-oriented changes that would be focused on the creation of such a vision. For example, by a 66-22 percent margin (79-15 percent among women), Americans support the adoption of a children's budget at the federal level. By 82-13 percent (83-12 percent among women), Americans support the president and Congress committing to a plan to cut child poverty in half by 2022, just as Great Britain has successfully done. And, by 78-15 percent (82-12 percent among women), Americans support the creation of a bipartisan commission, much like the successful 1991 Bipartisan Commission on Children, to recommend solutions to the problems facing America's children.

There it is: a pathway to progress staring our nation's leaders in the face. The question is whether they will see it.